Hooked on Hysterics: Reading First, politics second
Here is just the summary of the Reading First flap we might expect from a former member of the Bush Department of Education and current vice-president at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
By Michael J. Petrilli
If you enjoy political theater of the absurd, tune in to a House Education
and Labor committee hearing Friday on "Mismanagement and Conflicts of
Interest in the Reading First Program." There you will see a former
Bush-administration official defending a highly prescriptive big-government
program against one of the most liberal, big-government Democrats on Capitol
Hill, who will, you can count on it, be demanding flexibility and freedom
from big-government control.
This circus was set in motion on the campaign trail seven years ago. That's
when Governor George W. Bush proposed a heavy-handed federal program,
modeled on a similar -- and notably successful -- one in Texas, that would
provide mucho dinero for reading instruction, but only for interventions
that were scientifically proven to work.
While this might have offended conservatives on federalist grounds, it made
educational sense. Millions of children were failing to learn to read every
year, primarily because of the public education monopoly's fascination with
"whole language" reading -- the view that most children can learn to read
"naturally" if they are simply surrounded by enough good books and given
minimal guidance. A dizzying array of "reading programs" was in use, but
almost none of the programs were working for the kids who needed help most.
More than a third of the nation's children were finishing fourth grade
functionally illiterate, including two-thirds of all black and Hispanic
Meanwhile, the "scientific" approach to reading -- the carefully designed,
explicit instruction (including phonics and much more) found in so many
high-performing inner-city Catholic schools -- was getting great results.
States that embraced this reading method -- like Jeb Bush's Florida -- saw
their minority students make dramatic gains on the National Assessment of
Educational Progress. Why shouldn't every needy child get the good stuff?
The president spent much of his first nine months in office lobbying
Congress for his reading plan, the centerpiece of his No Child Left Behind
act. Famously, when the planes struck the Twin Towers, Bush was reading My
Pet Goat to a classroom of Florida second graders as part of his persuasion
Congress went along, but not before making some fateful decisions. First,
lawmakers watered down the requirements for eligible reading programs,
partly because "proven" programs were scarce, and partly because the
publishers of unproven programs were adroit lobbyists.
Second, bowing to "local control," Congress left it to the states to decide
which specific reading programs cut the mustard. It instructed the U.S.
Department of Education to ensure that states chose wisely but complicated
DOE's efforts to do so by leaving untouched an older law that prohibits the
feds from endorsing programs or dictating local decisions about curricula.
"Tell them what to do but don't tell them what to do" was the mixed message
to executive-branch officials.
Fast-forward to tomorrow's hearing, featuring the Education Department's
inspector general, who spent much of 2006 producing reports purporting to
show that federal officials steered Reading First grants to preferred
programs -- those with which they had "professional associations." Not that
he presented any evidence of financial shenanigans -- merely that a handful
of the expert panelists reviewing the state applications were partial to
certain reading approaches (specifically, those that work).
Another witness will be Chris Doherty, the former administration official
who directed the Reading First program until he was made to walk the plank
on behalf of his superiors last fall. His response to these "allegations"
might as well be "guilty as charged." He and his colleagues did exactly what
they were expected to do. Federal officials did prevent states from using
certain programs, programs not based on scientific research, and advised
them how to look for better ones, just as Congress intended. That was the
Complicating matters, at least for those who want to crucify Doherty and
impugn the Bush administration, is the success of the Reading First program
itself. Whatever was done, it evidently worked for kids. Probably better
than any federal education program in history. The Office of Management and
Budget recently declared it the only "effective" No Child Left Behind
program. A new report from the Government Accountability Office (not known
to go easy on the executive branch) is filled with plaudits from state
officials, who have seen their reading scores skyrocket. This creates a bit
of a conundrum for committee chairman George Miller, one of the architects
of No Child Left Behind, and thus of Reading First. His commitment to
closing the achievement gap is well known (he's even willing to spar with
the teachers' unions and education schools, a courageous quality in a
liberal Democrat who must depend on them for donations). But so is his
fealty to Speaker (and friend and fellow Californian) Nancy Pelosi. And this
supposed "scandal" gives the Democrats a shot at another Bush-administration
Thus we arrive at today's improbable events. If Miller chooses to attack
Doherty and his former bosses, he'll also be attacking the very sort of
big-government program that his party instinctively supports. (And one of
the few that is working!) A better use of his committee's time would be to
discuss the true choice that Congress needs to make (one they glossed over
five years ago): Should the federal government be in the business of
prescribing and proscribing curricula for the nation's schools, and if so
how? What are the pros and cons? But that sort of substantive deliberation,
so important to the nation's children, would be so much less entertaining.
-- Michael J. Petrilli served in the Bush Administration in the U.S.
Department of Education from 2001-2005. He is a research fellow at
Stanford's Hoover Institution and a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham
Michael J. Petrilli
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